Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Phillip, John
PHILLIP, JOHN (1817–1867), subject and portrait painter, the son of an old soldier, was born at 13 Skene Square, Aberdeen, on 19 April 1817. He showed a bent towards art from his earliest years; and when he became an errand-boy to a tinsmith in Hutchison Street, he used to paint rude pictures with the coarse colours used for coating the pails and cans in his master's shop. He was next apprenticed to Spark, a painter and glazier in Wallace Nook, Aberdeen, at the age of fifteen, and began to execute likenesses. He copied a picture of Wallace from a signboard in the neighbourhood, and himself painted a signboard for a basket-maker in Queen Street, a work which is mentioned as his first commission.
A friend of his father's, one David Benziel, master of the brig Manly, promised soon afterwards to take him some day to London in his vessel, but the eager youth could never induce him to name the day. At length, in 1834, he secreted himself in the Manly as a stowaway. On his discovery he was set to work to paint the figure-head, and after his arrival in London was obliged to aid in lifting ballast. At length left free for one entire day, he made straight for the Royal Academy, waiting two hours till its doors opened; ‘I was the first in,’ he used to say in telling the story, ‘and they swept me out with the sawdust in the evening;’ and that same night he started in the brig on his return to Aberdeen (Barlow, p. ix; Redgrave states that he spent a week in London). As a memorial of the voyage he painted a picture of the ship, a work still preserved, and the earliest of his productions of which the date is definitely ascertained.
Stimulated by what he had seen, he returned to his art with redoubled energy, and studied under James Forbes, a local portrait-painter, producing in the beginning of 1835, a genre picture, ‘The Pedlar or Newsvendor,’ an interior with twelve figures, which showed clear traces of the manner of Wilkie, whose works were, at this time, probably only known to the young painter through engravings. It was purchased by Lord Panmure, who afterwards presented it, along with Phillip's ‘The Morning of Bannockburn,’ 1843, and two of his cattle-subjects, to the Mechanics' Institution, Brechin. He was also occasionally employed at this time as a scene-painter in the Aberdeen Theatre. But his main occupation was still that of a house-painter and a glazier, under Spark.
One morning he was sent to the house of Major Pryse Lockhart Gordon, to repair a broken pane of glass; but the pictures on the walls, which were of an artistic quality hitherto quite unknown to him, fascinated him, and he could do no work. The major, who had a fine taste in art, became much interested in the young glazier, and brought him under the notice of Lord Panmure. Panmure generously wrote to Gordon: ‘I will be at the expense of your youth's education as an artist, and will more readily adopt any plan you may suggest for that purpose; so strike while the iron is hot; be prompt and spare no expense;’ at the same time he enclosed a cheque for 50l. In 1836 Phillip went to London under the auspices of Panmure. At first he studied under Thomas Musgrave Joy [q. v.], but in 1837 he was admitted to the schools of the Royal Academy, to whose exhibitions he began to contribute in 1838, showing a portrait of a young lady. As his name appears incorrectly in the catalogue as ‘J. Phillips,’ it has generally been stated that he did not begin to exhibit till the following year, when he was represented by ‘A Moor’ and a portrait of W. Clerihew. In 1840 he returned to Aberdeen, and there executed a number of portraits, including an admirable oval likeness of himself, and a full-length of James Blaikie of Craigiebuckler, provost of the city; but in 1841 he was again in London. He at first mainly occupied himself with portraiture; but in 1846 he exhibited an historical subject, ‘Wallace and his School-fellows at Dundee,’ followed in 1847 by his fine ‘Presbyterian Catechising,’ in which the influence of Wilkie is still apparent, as also in the other Scottish subjects, ‘Baptism in Scotland,’ 1850, and ‘The Spae-wife,’ ‘A Scottish Washing,’ and ‘A Sunbeam,’ all shown in 1851.
His health had always been delicate, and, acting on medical advice, he spent the winter of 1851–2 in Seville. The result was a complete change in his art. Influenced by the works of Velasquez, and still more strongly by the vivid sunlight and the potent colouring that he saw around him, his work gained in decision of touch and in chromatic splendour, and he speedily adopted the style which characterised his finest productions, and with which his name is associated. His work of this period having attracted the attention of Sir Edwin Landseer, R.A., he brought the painter to the notice of Queen Victoria, who purchased ‘The Spanish Gipsy Mother,’ 1853, and commissioned ‘The Letter-writer of Seville,’ 1854. In 1855 Phillip exhibited a Scottish picture, ‘Collection of the Offertory in a Scotch Kirk,’ which marked a distinct advance upon his previous renderings of similar subjects; but in 1856–7 he made an extended tour through Spain with Mr. Richard Ansdell, R.A., the chief results of which were his ‘Prison Window’ and ‘Charity,’ which were much admired in the academy of 1857. Their exhibition was followed in the same year by the painter's election as associate of the Royal Academy, and he became a full member in 1859, the year in which he exhibited ‘A Huff,’ a remarkably successful rendering of rich female beauty. In 1858 he was commissioned by Queen Victoria—who had previously added to her series of his pictures the powerfully dramatic ‘Dying Contrabandista’—to paint ‘The Marriage of the Princess Royal with the Crown Prince of Germany,’ a harassing ceremonial work, which he undertook reluctantly, and carried through in a manner much more artistic and successful than is usual in productions of this class.
In 1860 Spain was again visited, and the six months that Phillip spent there was a time of prodigious artistic activity. During this brief period no fewer than twenty-five important pictures, twenty smaller subjects, besides forty-five sketches in water-colours, and many pencil drawings, were begun, and most of the paintings were afterwards completed; for Phillip had now obtained full command of his brush, and worked with a decision and a speed that have been rarely surpassed. The productions of this period include several spirited and telling copies from the works of Velasquez, made in Madrid. It was to this visit to Spain that Phillip's masterpiece, ‘La Gloria,’ shown in the academy in 1864, is due. This great work depicts the strange Spanish custom of celebrating the death of an infant and her entrance into paradise with dancing and music; and, while it shows considerable dramatic feeling in its contrasts between the gaiety of the merry-makers, the silent grief of the mother, and the still, white face of the infant, it is still more remarkable as a singularly powerful example of splendid handling and gorgeous colouring. A small picture, ‘Il Cigarrillo,’ painted in the same year, in the delicate refinement of its green, white, and rosy tones, and in its exquisite rendering of light, marks the high-water mark of the artist's technique. Another exquisite technical triumph is ‘La Bomba,’ a girl pouring out wine for two muleteers, painted in 1862–3. In 1863 Phillip had completed and exhibited a work of a very different class, ‘House of Commons, 1860, during the Debate on the French Treaty,’ a work firmly handled, and successful in the portraiture that it contains; but in 1865 there appeared another important Spanish subject, ‘The Early Career of Murillo,’ who is depicted sketching in the fair at Seville.
In 1866 Phillip made his last visit to the continent, residing in Rome and at Florence, where he devoted himself to the study of Titian in the Pitti Palace; but soon after his return he was struck down by paralysis, in the house of Mr. W. P. Frith, R.S., and he died at Campden Hill, Kensington, 27 Feb. 1867.
In the London international exhibition of 1873 over two hundred of his works were included, the catalogue being compiled by his friend and executor Mr. T. Oldham Barlow, who had engraved so many of them, and who caused photographs to be taken from fifty-six of the works left unfinished in his studio, prints of which are in the possession of the British Museum and the Royal Academy. Some thirty were shown in the Aberdeen exhibition, and fourteen in the Manchester jubilee exhibition in 1887. In addition to his subject-pictures, Phillip produced many forcible portraits of distinguished persons, including Sir J. E. Millais, R.A., 1843; Richard Ansdell, R.A., 1856; Samuel Bough, R.S.A., 1856; T. Oldham Barlow, A.R.A., 1856; the prince consort, 1858; and the Princess Beatrice, 1860. He is represented in the National Gallery of Scotland by portraits of W. B. Johnstone, R.S.A., and his wife, by eight studies and unfinished works in oils and water-colours, and by his copy of ‘The Surrender of Breda’ by Velasquez; and in the schools of the Royal Academy, London, by copies of the same artist's ‘Velasquez painting the Infanta,’ and of his portrait known as ‘Alonso Cano,’ which was purchased for 1,080l. at his sale. Phillip frequently painted his own portrait, but the best and latest likeness is that executed in 1867 by Mr. C. E. Cundell. John Thomas produced a bust in marble in 1860.[Athenæum, 1867, pp. 294, 323–4, 356; Art Journal, 1867, pp. 127, 153, 157; Leisure Hour, xvii. 629; Clement and Hutton's Artists of the Nineteenth Century; Ruskin's Academy Notes, 1855; Palgrave's Essays on Art; Cunningham's Lives of the Painters, ed. Heaton, 1880; Barlow's Catalogue of Phillip's Works in International Exhibition of 1873; Armstrong's Scottish Painters; Redgrave's Dictionary; Bryan's Dict. of Painters and Engravers, ed. Graves and Armstrong; Royal Academy Catalogues.]